Top Tier Rewind: When Leeds were last promoted to the highest level

Howard Wilkinson arrived in 1988 and had a big impact at Elland Road


In June 2018, when Marcelo Bielsa signed on as head coach of Leeds United, it came as a bit of a surprise to many.

Here was a guy known worldwide for his influence over some of the game’s finest managers, a legitimate icon beloved and revered by the sport’s most intense cognoscenti, pitching up in Yorkshire to manage a club that hasn’t played at the top level in England since 2004. And one with a fairly limited playing staff who’d spent the previous five seasons seemingly on a quest to define mid-table mediocrity in the second tier.

It seemed a thoroughly wild occurrence at the time. But Leeds have form for this kind of thing. In 1988, thirty years before Bielsa’s arrival at Elland Road, Howard Wilkinson swapped relatively high-flying Sheffield Wednesday – then hovering around upper mid-table in Division 1 – for Leeds, who were plodding along close to the bottom of the Second Division.

Of course, Top Tier Rewind won’t go so far as to suggest Wilkinson’s standing in the game in 1988 was as lofty as Bielsa’s in 2018, but he was a respected, high-profile manager doing a good job at a big club. He’d led Wednesday to promotion from Div 2 at the first time of asking in 1983-84 and made them a fixture in Div 1, as well as leading them on several notable cup runs, including an FA Cup semi-final in 1985-86.

Yet, like Bielsa, he clearly saw something in Leeds, a sleeping giant that he believed he could awaken.

Which is exactly what he did.

When Wilkinson arrived in October 1988, Leeds were second-last with six points from nine matches. The team, by all accounts, was a rabble, but similarly to Bielsa, Wilkinson was focused on the details. He was organised and tactically sound, and believed strongly in making sure his players were as fit as possible. It wouldn’t take long until this approach began to reap dividends.

Wilkinson hammered them into shape over the course of 1988-89, resulting in a respectable 10th-place finish in the league. In 1989-90, however, Leeds had a fire lit under their arses. In a foreshadowing of what was to come for the club in the early 2000s, the manager convinced the board to dip into their pockets, and they duly embarked on a transfer-binge that plunged them into a debt in the millions of pounds.

Out went some of the dead wood and in came relatively expensive acquisitions such as Vinnie Jones, John Hendrie and Mel Sterland. Also in the door were Jim Beglin (free) and several more reasonable purchases like Mickey Thomas and John McClelland.

I was looking for players who were committed to what we needed to do to become the best organised, the fittest, the best set-piece outfit in the league. This would be our base,” Wilkinson told the Coaches’ Voice recently.

“The Leeds team I had at the start looked different to the one I had two years later, but the basic principles remained: press the ball high, win the ball early. Physically, be stronger and better organised.”

The new men joined a squad that included Gordon Strachan (joined in the March of 1988-89), Chris Fairclough and young guns David Batty, Gary Speed and Simon Grayson.

Leeds soared into the upper echelons of the table, and in January made two more key signings, goalkeeper Alessandro Nista and forward Lee Chapman. Chris Kamara also joined.

Chapman was 30 and a proven goalscorer who’d rattled them in for years under Wilkinson up in Sheffield – arguably, his signing would be one of the most important the club made in the modern era.

By the second half of the season, it was clear Leeds had turned a corner. They were now a serious team with talented, hard-working players doing the business under the guidance of a coach who knew his stuff.

In April, they battered title rivals Sheffield United 4-0 at home with a brace from Strachan and one each from Chapman and Speed. Despite losing to Barnsley at Elland Road two weeks later, Leeds became Second Division champions on the final day of the season with a goal from Chapman.

But it was only the beginning of the journey.

Remarkably, Wilkinson led his side to fourth in the top tier in 1990-91, with Chapman striking 31 times in all competitions before going on to win the last-ever First Divison title in 1991-92.

It’s hard – perhaps even impossible – to see Bielsa repeating this feat, but there’s no denying the parallels of his reign so far with the early years of the Wilkinson era.

Leeds are 10/11 to win the Championship in 2018-19

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